Monday, April 18, 2011

Justice as Fairness, Collecting John Rawls, Reading Political Philosophy

I've been surprised not to hear mention of John Rawls' famous theory of justice during the current news emphasis on the budget debates in Washington DC.  While I have no standing to comment on the particulars of any theory of justice, I do hold a special place in my heart and soul for the the justice as fairness doctrine put forth by Harvard Philosopher, John Rawls, 1921-2002.   I first became interested in Rawls as a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University when a research scholar I was working for suggested that we could read Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, 1971, together and he would tutor me on how to read and study philosophy.  I think we took three weeks to simply discuss the Table of Contents and what that would suggest about the content to follow!  I still have my paperback copy from that year to remind me how to read philosophy.  After my experience with Rawls, I was drawn into the world of Kantian moral and political philosophy and remain confused to this day!

Collecting contemporary political philosophy is a wonderful pursuit.  To get started I suggest the following acquisition targets, all originally written in English and all important contributions to the study of justice.

There are 2 copies of John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Belnap Press (Harvard University Press), 1971 currently available at either $230 or $1000.  A $500 investment can score the collector a pristine condition, 2nd printing!  I imagine that over the next 5 years as more scholars of Rawls' time retire and expire, additional copies of the first printing will enter the market.  If you simply want to read the 1971 edition the book lives on in paperback.  A revised edition was released in 1999 and is the definitive theory of justice although citations to the 1971 edition make it impossible for scholars to ignore the original edition.  The 1971 edition is the collectible one!

When collecting Rawls, acquiring a copy of John Rawls, Political Liberalism, Columbia University Press, 1993 is a good idea as well.  There are only two copies available at this time.  One is an association copy, inscribed by Rawls to the wife of his his long time colleague, critic and friend, Burton Dreben (1927-1999).  I have my doubts that an association copy is actually worth $1000 but  I have seen association copies of A Theory of Justice priced over $3000 and they are no longer available.

A foundational book of political philosophy that should be in every serious collection is Henry Sidgwick, The Method of Ethics.  Rawls carefully studied Sidgwick and makes reference to his masterpiece in A Theory of Justice .  Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, Macmillan, London, 1884 has been revised at least 7 times and while there are no 1884 copies available, there are what I consider, collectible copies for sale (see the University of Chicago Press edition from 1962 via the link above). 

Understanding the political philosophy of Justice requires understanding basic philosophy and a huge amount of economic and game theory.  A defining work that provides great insight into the economic and game theory of justice was written by Richard Posner, a legal scholar and current Federal Judge.  The Economics of Justice, Richard Posner, Harvard University Press, 1983 is a comprehensive introduction to the application of economic analysis to theories of justice, the law and public policy.  There is one copy of the first edition, first printing hardcover available today but for those wanting simply a reading copy, paperback remains in print.

If you collect to read and learn, I suggest balancing Rawls with this masterpiece by Brian Barry, Political Argument, Routledge and Kegan, Paul, London, 1965 (Humanities Press, New York, 1965).  Brian Barry was a lion of political philosophy in the last part of the 20th century and merits a place in every collection of political theory. Political Argument is a revised version of Barry's Oxford Doctoral thesis and provides a great introduction to the application of game theory to the study of political theory.  Barry also wrote the first book length critique of Rawls, A Theory of Justice, written over a three month period while he was crossing the Atlantic on a steamship!   Brian Barry, Liberal Theory of Justice:  Critical Examination of the Principal Doctrines of "Theory of Justice" by John Rawls, Oxford University Press, 1973 is very rare to find in collectible condition but well worth the effort!

In his last years, Brian Barry also published two volumes of a projected, three volume series entitled, Theories of Justice,  only Volume 1- A Treatise on Social Justice and Volume 2- Justice as Impartiality were completed before his passing.  Volume 1-A Treatise on Social Justice, University of California Press, 1989 was published as an original paperback and Volume 2-Justice As Impartiality, Oxford University Press, 1995 was published in a hardcover with dust jacket edition.  Both of these volumes are considered important contributions to political theory and do present the state of the art philosophical work concerning justice in the late 20th century.

Finally, no collection of contemporary political philosophy can be considered serious unless Sir Isaiah Berlin is represented.  While Berlin is not known for original ideas, he has had a great impact on contemporary debates, especially from his writings on the history of ideas and the concept of freedom.  Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty,  Inaugural Lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory (Oxford, 1958: Clarendon Press), 55 pp., is a high priority acquisition target for my library.  It was with these essays that Berlin introduced positive and negative liberty and I have never seen a copy for sale but hope to run across one someday!  Berlin has a rich bibliography with a long list of published books and essays and a host of collecting targets to enjoy finding and adding to a collection.     

Collecting political philosophy, especially post 1880, is a wonderful pursuit.  Many of the foundational books are hard to find but reasonably priced, making the search challenging but in the end rewarding!  I have considered learning fine bookbinding and acquiring more contemporary political philosophy, often published in original paperback, and re-binding them in leather.  I will get around to writing about collecting political philosophy from the 17th, 18th and early 19th century over time.


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